Opening up a fascinating new world, where practice meets theory


Ilse Daelman is Managing Director at our very own Antwerp Management School (AMS) and is one of the first graduates of the Executive PhD program which is offered at AMS in close partnership with the University of Antwerp (UA). She started the program in 2016 and successfully defended her doctoral thesis a few weeks ago.

Her research focused on understanding entrepreneurial motives, identifying different types of entrepreneurs and challenging the deeply rooted bias on what constitutes an ambitious entrepreneur. It makes a plea for a better appraisal of the diversity and the potential that different entrepreneurial types represent.


Why did you choose to do a PhD program for executives?

Most executive PhD students want to do doctoral research that is in line with their job. For me, it was quite the opposite. I had been around in the corporate world for almost 15 years, and I wanted to broaden my horizon and see where it would take me. So I was looking to acquire new skills and to dive deep into a new subject matter. And that is exactly what an executive PhD program is all about: you don't only develop new competences, but you are also pushed to apply them in research and to really make a topic ‘your own’.

Ilse Daelman ePhD graduation

And what did you like most about the AMS program?

You gain insights in ways that corporate careers rarely provide. Academic literature, for instance, has a lot to offer to business professionals, but you wouldn’t typically know this when you are in a managerial track in a company. A whole new world of insights opens up simply by learning to use academic sources. You become more critical when reflecting on business problems and you can apply the knowledge and tools to tackle them in an academic way.

I also liked the modular approach. The AMS program is built in a way that you obtain the required educational credits by joining classes, submitting assignments that contribute to your own research, and by attending relevant doctoral conferences. AMS and UA help in gaining access to such conferences, but also in mastering the skills to present your own research and to discuss the research of your peers.

While the level of autonomy is very high, you can rely on your personal supervisors and the broader network of expert faculty. They are always willing to help and act as a sounding board. What’s more, thanks to the AMS program you become part of an international community of doctoral students. They all have different backgrounds, expertise domains, and personal drivers. This diversity makes the program all the more enriching.

All in all, the AMS Executive PhD program takes you on an impactful journey, both on a personal and a professional level. From the first module onwards, you are exposed to a completely new way of looking at things. You acquire a ‘new language’, you exchange views with academics about topics you would typically discuss with your coworkers, etc. The program pushes you out of your comfort zone and introduces you to a fascinating new world, where practice meets theory. 

What was your research about?

I looked at entrepreneurship as a career choice, which is a fairly new perspective in terms of academic research. Friends of mine, who are entrepreneurs, often have to contend with bias. Many people still think that entrepreneurs are in it for the money, and associate ‘being driven by money’ with ‘being ambitious’. And yet, there are so many other reasons why people choose to be an entrepreneur: autonomy, for instance, or the opportunity to grow or to make a positive contribution to society.

Through my research, I wanted to help create a better understanding of entrepreneurs and their motivations. For the qualitative research, I approached entrepreneurs via my personal network. For the quantitative research, I was supported by networks such as Voka, WeAreJane, Acerta, and UNIZO. My research resulted in the development of a measurement instrument for entrepreneurial motivations and in identifying and characterizing different types of entrepreneurs. The outcomes demonstrated how being ‘non-economically driven’ does not impede ambition. My research thus makes a plea for a better appraisal of the diversity and the potential that different entrepreneurial types represent.

Ilse Daelman ePhD graduation 2


How did you manage the combination of work, private life and doing your PhD?

It takes a lot of perseverance and discipline. At the same time, as contradictory as it may sound, you also need ‘unproductive’ time: time to reflect, to process. At work, you are on top of things, you usually know how to handle a situation. But when you are doing a PhD, you don’t always feel like you know what you’re doing. So you need to give yourself time to get to that point during your research.

It also really helps of course, if you have a strong support network, both at home and at work: people who understand why you are doing it and who are okay with the fact that work-life-PhD balance will be a bit off sometimes. I have two little girls, who were 2 and 4 years old when I enrolled, and they just took it in stride when ‘mommy’ had to ‘work on her Pee-eeehh-deee’. I still can’t believe it worked out so well, but it did. We have even grown closer as a family over the past few years.


So how do you look back on your learning journey?

I just feel so privileged that I had the opportunity to do this. You get to do top-level, meaningful research, surrounded by people who are willing to share their expertise. You become part of a new community, tapping into so much knowledge and discovering so many different ways to tackle challenges. It gives you a very powerful toolkit for the future.

It wasn’t easy at times, but I’ve enjoyed the ride so much. You go from ‘not knowing what you don’t know’ to ‘knowing what you know and what you still don’t know’ but being okay with it. I’m glad I made it to the end, and I’m even more glad that this is not the end. It feels like a whole new beginning!